How to save a mountain

Published 2:46 pm Monday, June 18, 2012

There were lots of reasons some people in Avery County wanted to stop a rock mining operation on the beautiful Belview mountainside.

*Tracy and her Aunt Ollie, because preliminary blasting operations had cracked the foundation of their house.

*Faye Williams, whose home adjoined the mine site, because of the unbearable noise and dust; and

*Jay Leutze, a UNC-Chapel Hill law school graduate who had fled urban life to write novels in the peace and quiet of the mountains. Now he faced the prospect of constant noise from the massive rock crushing machinery that would be a part of the mine.

Not everyone in Avery County opposed the mine, as Jay learned after Tracy and Ollie persuaded him to try to stop the operation.

Louise Buchanan, postmistress in nearby Minneapolis, told Jay with pride that it was “going to be the biggest surface mine in western North Carolina. Right here in little old Dog Town!”

He learned that Paul Brown, the rock mine owner, was an influential businessman with many powerful friends.

Avery County desperately needed the jobs that the mine would provide.

The story of how Tracy, Ollie, Faye, and Jay gathered a host of allies to mount a successful effort to stop the mining operation is told in his book, “Stand Up That Mountain: The Battle to Save One Small Community in the Wilderness Along the Appalachian Trail.”

In the end, the decision that stopped the mine had little or nothing to do with the cracked foundation of Ollie Cox’s house, or the noise and dust Faye Williams feared, or the disruption of Jay Leutze’s peace and quiet.

Nor did the decision turn on the jobs and other economic benefits the mine might have brought to Avery County.

The critical fact that made it possible to stop the mine concerned the experience that hikers on the Appalachian Trail would have as they passed near by the mining site.

The rock mining operations would mar one of the most beautiful views hikers experience along the trail.

How and why the opponents of the mine used the Appalachian Trail as the linchpin in their effort to stop the mine is an important part of Leutze’s saga.

That story, by itself, is reason enough to read “Stand Up That Mountain.”

Leutze takes his readers from the creeks, coves, and courthouse of Avery County to the Raleigh offices of state government bureaucrats. Though these officials are charged with administering state laws objectively and perfectly, they are really human beings, subject to error and misjudgment and the influence of those they like and respect.

Leutze’s readers also see inside law offices. Leutze lets them hear lawyers size up the legal strengths and weaknesses of their cases and of the judges who will hear their arguments. Finally, he lets his readers experience, as he did, the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory that come with the clash between vigorous advocates of important but different positions.

What turns this important report of a public-policy struggle into a literary masterpiece are Leutze’s storytelling talents. He introduces characters and tells things about them that make us care. He records their voices and captures the revealing ways people talk, mountain people, lawyers, bureaucrats, lawyers, and judges. He uses those characters to help him tell the story. And he opens himself, writing with passion about things that move him.

With the mountain peace and quiet for which he fought so hard now secure, Leutze can again turn his magnificent talents to writing fiction. The results will surely bring to North Carolinians another outstanding novelist they can be proud to share with the rest of the world.


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.